Is it possible to have online privacy?
Facebook and Google find themselves at the centre of a privacy storm, but you don't need to hit the 'delete' key just yet
There’s a storm brewing in cyberspace. Internet users who, until now, have been perfectly happy to share their most intimate thoughts online, are questioning whether things have gone too far.
Many of these privacy concerns centre around Facebook and Google, which is hardly surprising given their dominance – billions of people around the world interact with these sites on a daily basis.
Google is under investigation in a number of countries after it admitted that its Street View mapping cars had inadvertently collected browsing information sent over wireless networks, although it says it is highly unlikely that any of the data would be useful.
Some Facebook users are worried about the site’s tinkering with privacy settings, which has made more personal information publicly visible by default, forcing users to opt out of the settings if they’re unhappy.
Indeed, such is the strength of feeling that thousands of users have pledged to delete their accounts on May 31 in protest.
It’s a dramatic and noble gesture, but perhaps rather drastic – Facebook does provide controls to adjust privacy settings for almost every element of your account; but too many users find the process confusing or time-consuming, and Facebook itself has admitted that it needs to provide a better system.
But don’t panic – there are steps you can take to balance the desire to share information with the need to protect certain details from certain people. Here, we explore ways to manage your privacy online:
Securing your computer
Adjusting the privacy settings on your social-networking profile or photo-sharing account is not the only way to ensure that personal information is only seen by people you want to share it with.
Keeping your computer secure, ensuring you’re running the right kind of software, and even using special tools that enable you to browse the internet “under the radar” can all be useful.
First, install any software updates to ensure that your operating system is as secure as possible. This will make it more tricky for hackers and cybercriminals to access sensitive information.
You should also install antivirus software, to track and eliminate any suspicious files or programs on your machine – we like Avast! and AVG, which are both free.
A firewall is crucial too, as it allows you to monitor incoming and outgoing connections from your computer, and spot any unexpected activity – try the free version of ZoneAlarm.
It’s also worth using a web browser with decent privacy features – Firefox is a good choice, and offers extensions that can help with online privacy, while Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 8 features InPrivate, which prevents cookies, forms and usernames from being retained as you navigate the web.
If you want to disguise your browsing habits to a larger degree, you will need to use an “anonymiser”.
This is a piece of software that re-routes your browsing session through various relay points, making it hard to trace web use back to your computer’s unique IP address.
The downside is that your browsing session will be noticeably slower as your connection pings its way around cyberspace, and some websites, videos or other plug-ins may not work properly.
But if you’re determined to go down this road, take a look at anonymizer.com and torproject.org.
Adjusting Facebook settings
The purpose of Facebook, of course, is connecting people. The site allows you to group your “friends” in categories, which makes it easier to share specific information only with certain people.
You might be happy for your closest friends to see all your contact details and flick through your photo albums, but may be wary of letting work colleagues have the same level of access.
It’s worth taking the time to set up these “friend” lists, as it makes the tasks of managing your privacy settings easier.
There are a few other Facebook settings you should adjust. The first is opting out of searches, to prevent your profile appearing publicly when someone searches for you on Facebook or Google.
The second is to protect your picture albums and videos – we’ve all read stories about people who have been sacked after embarrassing photographs appeared online.
You can avoid this problem by restricting who can view pictures stored on your profile, and even who can view photos in which you’ve been “tagged” or labelled – even if that picture appears on someone else’s profile page.
You can also restrict access to every photo album associated with your profile, to choose exactly which groups of contacts can view which sets of pictures.
Publishing full dates of birth, postal addresses and other contact details on Facebook – and then leaving profiles open to the public – makes it easier for cyber criminals to commit identity fraud.
Ensure that only your trusted friends are able to see this information, and adjust it category by category.
It’s important, too, to decide how much personal information you’re willing to share with third-party websites.
When you install a game on your Facebook profile, chances are that you will agree to share some of your information with the developer.
It’s also crucial to note that because Facebook is based on “networks” of connections, your friends could be sharing some of your personal information with third-party websites without your explicit consent – but you can adjust your privacy settings to restrict this information-sharing.
It’s also worth considering opting out of Facebook’s controversial “Instant Personalisation” scheme, a new feature that is designed to help you “connect more easily” with some of Facebook’s preferred partners. It is switched on by default, but it’s very easy to turn off.
Most of these options can be adjusted under the “Account” tab on your Facebook profile, but here are step-by-step instructions for all of these changes.
How to delete your Facebook account
Permanently deleting your Facebook account means that all your personal information will be erased.
Some material, such as photographs, may remain on Facebook’s servers for “technical reasons”, but the company stresses that the material is “completely inaccessible” to other Facebook users, and cannot be linked back to an individual user.
If you want to delete your Facebook account, visit this Facebook page to submit your request.
The account will be deleted immediately, but it can take up to a fortnight for Facebook to clear your information from its server cache.
Deletion is not reversible – if you subsequently decide to rejoin Facebook, you will need to build your profile again from scratch.